Crisis management: Helping douse the fire in your hair

When companies suddenly find themselves in crisis, whether due to a business downturn or some unforeseen event that could harm their reputation, most don’t have a communication plan in place that can help them minimize the damage, public-relations experts here say.

At a time of economic and financial upheaval, though, and with a constant barrage of news and word-of-mouth blogging via the Internet, some say they’re seeing awareness rise among corporate executives of the benefits of developing such a strategy.

“We’re often brought in when their hair is on fire. They’re in some sort of predicament that they don’t know how to get out of,” says Jeffrey Bell, a partner in the Spokane office of Gallatin Public Affairs, which specializes in difficult crisis-management cases.

Bell says, though, that, “Our goal is to be pro-active with our clients day in and day out,” and to prod them into having a well-rehearsed communication plan that they can turn to and follow when a crisis develops.

“We almost require them to consider this,” though not all choose to follow the firm’s recommendation, he says.

Developing such a plan typically involves helping the client solidify its emergency decision-making process, determine the most expedient lines of communication, identify key audiences that need to be notified, and decide on what messages likely will need to be conveyed, Public-relations industry representatives here say. It also involves extensive worst-case scenario simulations and presentation planning, and news media-related training, they say.

Creating such a plan can cost as little as $5,000 to $10,000 initially, they say, and range upward from there depending on how detailed the plan is and how much preparation and training is required. Post-event crisis-management services, meanwhile, can range into the tens of thousands of dollars per month, depending on the nature and duration of the crisis. Bell, says though, that, “Typically in a situation like this, price is not an issue.”

Defining what constitutes a crisis is subjective. In this context, though, Bell and others say, it typically is when the health or safety of people are at risk; a client’s ability to operate or its credibility, reputation, and image are jeopardized; or a client faces or is involved in legal action of some type.

The cases in which the interviewed public-relations firms have played a consulting role have ranged from high-profile litigation involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane and the River Park Square downtown development to chemical spills, business closures and takeovers, labor disputes, employee fraud, a plant explosion, and a data breach, among others.

“If they’re around long enough, every company has a crisis,” Bell says. “What you’re judged by is how you handle it.”

Chris Carlson, a founding partner in the Gallatin office here, contends that, “Successfully handling a crisis comes down to communication,” meaning with employees, shareholders, the news media, and the general public.

“I’d submit it’s one of the fair ways to judge (business owners’ and executives’) competency,” Carlson says.

He argues that dealing with crises “comes down to common sense,” and that simply hiring an attorney to help deal with a crisis often is inadequate because focusing solely on the courts of law neglects the equally important court of public opinion.

When such crises catch the attention of the news media, he says, “The worst thing you can say is, ‘No comment.’”

A lot of business executives, even surprisingly at some larger companies, take their private-sector status to mean they don’t have to answer to the public, Carlson says. However, he adds, “They operate by public consent. You ignore the public at your peril.”

Bell says, “The public is very forgiving with people who are open and forthright,” but opinions form quickly in this age of 24-hour online news, which means that companies and institutions confronted with crises must be prepared to respond quickly to counter first impressions. For that reason, he and Carlson say they’re insistent that clients respond publicly to crises in the same news cycle in which they occur.

Bell says, “Employees are the ones who often are left in the dark,” yet they also are important ambassadors for companies who can do a lot of damage to their employers’ reputations through negative word-of-mouth if they feel threatened or ignored.

“It’s all about restoring trust and confidence,” Bell says. “That’s really at the heart of this.”

Cher Desautel, president and CEO of Desautel Hege Communications, a Spokane-based public relations and marketing firm, says, “We try to have communications plans in place with all of our clients. We really take a preventive approach,” though crises inevitably still occur.

Catering to virtually every type of business, Desautel says, “I would say there isn’t a sector we deal with that we haven’t done communication training.” Along with its own clients, Desautel Hege has collaborated with Gallatin on some crisis-management cases.

A lot of the work involved in creating a good crisis communication plan involves regular scenario-based training, Desautel says. Then, when something unexpected happens, she says, “It’s a thing of beauty to be able to pull it out and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’”

Desautel says, “It’s a good thing for everybody to have one. We price it out to make it affordable. We’re real flexible around that. It can be by the hour, by the project,” and can vary greatly depending on the breadth of services a client wants, “so every project is a little different.”

She adds, “It doesn’t’ have to be an elaborate plan. If it’s simple and works well, that’s the best. You could get a good start on a real basic plan that would have the (emergency) messaging, and what you would do, for $5,000 to $10,000, depending on customization. They go up from there.”

Of the public-relations firms here that offer such services, Desautel says, “I think we all feel we can make a difference in easing the stress level” that companies and institutions face when a crisis arises.

Jennifer West, Northwest corporate leader and general manager here for Rockey Hill & Knowlton, which is part of New York-based Hill & Knowlton Inc., says that office offers a broad array of preparedness and training services. When necessary, she says it calls on other Hill & Knowlton offices for their expertise, and assists them in meeting their clients’ needs.

“There’s a lot of organizations out there that know it is just a matter of time, so they will hire a public-relations firm or reputation-management experts to be on call,” so that when a crisis occurs, they can respond quickly, West says.

She estimates that her office’s clients probably are about a 50-50 mix of existing clients that have an on-call relationship and new or prospective ones that are saying, “Oh my God, we have a crisis developing today.”

West says, “I have been working in this business for about 18 years now, and the level of understanding and realization that crises are going to occur has really increased. Companies really are thinking about it and preparing.”

When new clients come to the firm already in a state of crisis, they often will transition into longer-term, reputation-management types of agreements once the immediate crises are resolved, she says.

A fast-expanding niche area for the overall Hill & Knowlton network is what’s called litigation communications, which seeks to align legal strategies with those being used to sway public opinion. “It’s interesting because it has really grown as a segment of our business,” she says.

The Internet “has added a very unpredictable medium” to the communications mix, and created an environment “where a crisis can really get out of control fast,” West says, noting that Hill & Knowlton now has digital-media experts who are versed in how to respond via that medium.

“It’s really precedent-setting for this area of crisis communication,” she says, “and there aren’t that many companies actually thinking about it.”


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